Written by dentist, Dr. Zeenat Jakhura
Baby teeth are very important to your child’s health and development. They help him or her chew, speak, smile and hold space in the jaws for permanent teeth that are growing under the gums.
Even though baby teeth are temporary they can get cavities. Starting infants off with good oral care can protect their teeth for decades to come.
It’s common in lot of countries for parents to offer a bottle of milk, juice, sugary drinks, or even a pacifier laced with sweetened syrup to help the baby sleep well at night and for the mother to get some rest. Breastmilk is the healthiest drink for a baby, exclusively for 6 months and selectively for 1-2 yrs. Sugar laden drinks, juice (no matter how fresh), and cow’s milk all have natural and/or artificially added sugars that form a layer on the baby’s developing teeth.
What happens in the body:
When liquid that contains sugar (such as sobo and formula) is given at nap time or bedtime, the sugar stays on the teeth. Bacteria (germs) in the mouth (there are millions of germs in our mouth all the time) turn the sugar in these liquids into acid. The acid eats away at the enamel (the outer coating of the teeth) and tooth decay begins.
During the day, the mouth is filled with saliva which is released in the mouth in response to all the eating and chewing going on. Saliva helps to digest the food a baby eats. Saliva in the mouth helps wash away some of the sugary liquid from the teeth. At nap time or at night the flow of saliva slows down and the baby swallows less often. Bacteria have more time to work on the sugars to produce the acid that causes decay.
Untreated or longstanding decay can cause pain and infection. If teeth are infected or lost too early due to baby bottle tooth decay, your child may develop poor eating habits, speech problems, crooked teeth, and damaged adult teeth. In addition, the chances that adult teeth will end up being crooked or damaged are greatly increased.
What you can do to protect your baby’s teeth:
Clean your baby’s teeth with a soft damp cloth after feeding and after giving any medicine or cough syrup that contains sugar.
Don’t put liquids that contain sugar in your child’s bottle when you put him to bed for nap time or at night. It’s best never to give a baby a bottle in bed. If absolutely necessary to give a bottle, best is to give a bottle with water.
From 1 year onwards, train you baby to drink from a cup. Babies don’t keep cups in their mouth when falling asleep.
It’s never too late to break bad habits. If your child drinks sweetened liquids from the bottle and/or sleeps with a bottle, break the habit now and cut the risk of baby bottle tooth decay. You can gradually dilute the bottle contents with water over 2 to 3 weeks. Once that period is over, fill the bottle only with water.
Don’t let your child fall asleep while nursing from either the breast or bottle (especially at night). Once baby is asleep remove the bottle or nipple from the mouth. This helps to break habit of needing to suck to sleep.
Don’t use the bottle as a pacifier or soother. Sucking is a natural need for all babies. If your baby seems to need more time for sucking after being fed, give him either a pacifier or a bottle of plain water.
Never dip your baby’s bottle or pacifier or fingers in something sweet or sticky like sugar or honey and put it in your baby’s mouth.
Bottles, pacifiers and fingers should be kept clean all the time.
Introducing your baby to brushing teeth:
When the child’s teeth start coming in you can begin to use a small, soft toothbrush or cloth to brush his teeth. Babies may be resistant to an object being put in their mouth when they are very young. You may have more success, sticking to a damp soft cloth at the beginning and slowly introducing the brush to your baby when he is about 1 year old and starts to imitate others. Get him a child sized toothbrush to play with. Once he is comfortable with the idea of brushing, you may introduce brushing with supervision. Make a playful routine of it. Be sure to brush all surfaces of the teeth, including the gums and tongue. You don’t need to use toothpaste, but if you do, use a small amount of fluoride toothpaste (about as tiny as a smear of a rice grain).
Children should be able to brush their teeth by themselves by age 11. Until then, parents should watch or help, based on their child’s abilities.